A select gathering

Measuring the Mind
September 1, 1995

Achieving consensus on educational policy is a great challenge to democracy; even individually we face conflicts between political preferences and parental responsibilities. Measuring the Mind is a readable and scholarly history of the search for this consensus. It ingeniously combines an analysis of selective education with a prosopography of nine people who founded educational psychology and influenced educational policy. It deserves a wide audience, including ministers of education.

Adrian Wooldridge documents 19th-century ideas influencing these pioneers: selective education to cope with variations in educability revealed when compulsory elementary education was introduced; a meritocracy favouring talent over patronage; and relating education to developing minds. The psychologist Sir Cyril Burt and the contributions underlying his high reputation figure prominently. After his death, this reputation was tarnished by allegations of scientific fraud that also reflected the politics of education. No new evidence is presented but admirers of Burt must welcome the account of the motivation of his work: the social and educational welfare of the disadvantaged; finding and fostering talent.

Burt was appointed by the London County Council in 1912 as the "first official psychologist in the world" and was influenced by Francis Galton's work on the inheritance of ability and Charles Spearman's demonstration that differences in ability could be explained by positing a single general intellectual factor. Intelligence as an inherited general ability showing wide population variation was the focus of Burt's scientific life. His peers shared his view that intelligence tests objectively identified the education a child needed, but some differed on the structure of mental abilities.

The re-establishment in 1920 of the Board of Education's consultative committee gave the group, Burt especially, the opportunity to become scientific advisers on policy and practice for nursery, primary and secondary education and for those with a mental handicap. The committee's reports influenced opinion as well as official policy. The end of this influence was signalled by the 1943 Norwood report on secondary education, prepared without expert advice. It espoused teaching based on Greek philosophy and Christian thought rather than on "provisional hypotheses" of modern "scientists". The psychologists' continuum of ability was replaced by three categories of interest: learning per se; applied science or art; and, to paraphrase, "rude mechanicals". Somehow, this ad hoc report came directly to R. A. Butler: perhaps the board thought its consultative committee too radical. The 1944 Education Act offered gains in opportunity but, reflecting Conservative beliefs in privilege, hardly advanced meritocracy. Fixing the age of selection, against Burt's preference for a continuing process, led to discontent among parents.

The later chapters analyse conflicts among rival principles, even within parties, and the vicissitudes of Burt's concept of inherited intelligence, intimately caught up in them.

Among Conservatives, meritocracy was favoured as essential in a modern industrial society and opposed as a threat to privilege. On the left, meritocracy was challenged by those, especially Marxists, who considered that selection supported capitalism by training for niches in a hierarchical state; others believed it damaged community loyalties. Postwar sociologists concluded that selection failed to promote opportunity, and environmental factors dominated; a new generation of psychologists doubted whether intelligence was fixed over time, or IQ tests culture-free, or immune to coaching. Thus, an influential trend of academic and political thinking regarded intelligence as a product of environment; with equality of outcome rivalling equality of opportunity. As comprehensive schooling advanced, supported by both parties, even selection for streaming became suspect.

The Black Papers, to which Burt contributed, persuaded both parties in the 1970s that egalitarianism was failing and selective education was needed. Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph were surprised by opposition from voters who had bought houses in areas favouring educational opportunities and feared the adverse consequences of selection for their strategy. The only alternative was to replace selection by differentiation within schools.

Recent history has seen the weakening of the comprehensive system: the introduction of alternative types of schools; and, after the 1988 Education Act, competition by schools for children and by parents for places. As Wooldridge comments, Burt would have welcomed variety of provision, but would have been critical of a national curriculum that little recognises wide variations in educability. He would consider parental choice as, once again, disadvantaging the working-class child. Those with lesser ability might also suffer if schools sought the best pupils. So fair selection again becomes a major problem and, with increasing variety of school provision and devolved responsibility, one of great complexity.

Given its combination of themes, this book will inevitably raise quibbles from historians, educationists and psychologists. Mine are provoked by the title. It becomes clear that the only measurement of the mind considered is by intelligence tests, mainly of the general factor kind, that "psychologist" means educational psychologist and the latter, of course, are mostly those whose major contributions preceded the 1944 Act. This creates a particular perception of the contributions of psychology to education, the role of the educational psychologist and the development of psychology in Britain. On these topics and on the inheritability of intelligence, the history is a shade Whiggish, or Burtish. I cannot resist an unfair comment akin to asking for a different book. Although Wooldridge demonstrates an excellent grasp of many controversies, he is analysing the opinions of experts. Consequently, I was left hankering for a scientific analysis of the role of selection in education free of political polemics.

One wonders what course postwar educational policy would have taken had the Board of Education's consultative committee survived. Indeed, the secretary of state ought to consider reconstituting it, with evidence coming from all disciplines concerned with education, even geneticists. The main unanswered question remains: how to provide education appropriate to individual ability and personality; and to ensure that every child has the opportunity to gain it?

Robert Audley is emeritus professor of psychology, University College, London.

Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England c1860-1990

Author - Adrian Wooldridge
ISBN - 0521 39515 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 448

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